Extreme Weather: A Climate Change Wake Up Call?

May 31st, 2011 at 9:50 pm | 18 Comments |

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Bill McKibben, cure founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, health recently wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post titled A link between climate change and Joplin tornadoes? Never!

Using rather effective sarcasm, McKibben makes the case that the spate of recent extreme weather events should be a wake-up call on the urgency of addressing climate change. He correctly points out that climate scientists have been predicting for years that carbon loading in our atmosphere will create droughts, floods and other extreme weather events.

Does that scientific concurrence absolutely prove cause and effect? No, but it does distinguish McKibben’s hysterics from those of climate deniers who point to every cold snap or snowstorm as evidence that global warming is a hoax.

Because “climate” represents long-term trends, and day-to-day weather relies on multiple variables, it is wrong to say that any one weather event or abnormal season either proves or disproves climate change. However, weather trends that are demonstrated over time, and that track with other well-documented scientific evidence, should indeed be a wake-up call. We ignore them at our own peril.

The more important question that McKibben’s op-ed begs is: How much evidence will it take to convince the American public and its elected representatives that action on climate change is warranted?

It is hard to imagine that most Americans who have been watching news reports over the past few months of numerous extreme weather events—the unusually powerful tornadoes wreaking havoc across much of the South and Midwest, the record-breaking flooding along the Mississippi River, the extreme droughts in the Southwest, and the record snowfalls in the Midwest and Northeast—have not begun to suspect that something is amiss and that climate change may be responsible.

The problem is that action to address climate change not only requires the belief that it is happening; it also requires the belief that we can do something about it. This is where the climate change deniers—along with some narrowly focused folks in the oil and coal industries—do their most damage.

As the deniers’ assertion that climate change is a hoax begins to falter under the weight of reality, they have begun to pivot to the argument that climate change is a natural occurrence that mankind cannot alter, only adapt to. It is an argument designed to lull people into a state of complacency—similar to the tactics totalitarian regimes use to lull their subjects into passivity and government dependency.

Perhaps President Reagan recognized such tactics when he rejected the arguments of those who were trying to forestall action to address another climate problem, ozone depletion. He consulted with climate scientists, looked honestly at the evidence, accepted mankind’s role, and took prudent action to solve the problem.

Reagan faced ozone depletion with the same clear-eyed realism that he faced the threats posed by the Soviet Union and communism.

In an interview last year, Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz recalled that the President believed action on ozone depletion was necessary because he recognized the huge potential for damage. Shultz noted that Reagan viewed acting on the best available science in the same light as taking out an insurance policy.

Reagan’s leadership resulted in the Montreal Protocol Treaty, which began the phase out of chlorofluorocarbons.  Today the threat from ozone depletion is greatly diminished and our stratospheric ozone layer is healing.

Reagan once said, “Facts are stubborn things.”

With today’s climate threat, let’s hope that like Reagan, we are wise enough to face the facts honestly—and courageous enough to accept our responsibility to act.

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18 Comments so far ↓

  • roesch

    Of course you can tell by the increase in insurance rates just who is aware of the climate shift, and then there are those who are quietly migrating to safer areas of the country out of the flood and tornado zones into the upper midwest. If next year is a repeat of this year’s weather, the good senator from Oklahoma is going to have to ask why does God hate my state.

  • Arms Merchant

    [A] Newsweek article cited “the most devastating outbreak of tornadoes ever recorded”, killing “more than 300 people”, as among “the ominous signs that the Earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically”. But that article was published on April 28, 1975, when Newsweek listed the US tornado disaster of 1974 as one of the harbingers of disastrous global cooling, heralding the approach of a new ice age.

    Thank goodness that we have more credible sources today, like journalist Bill McKibbon of 350.org

    • elizajane

      ArmsMerchant, The difference is that global cooling was always a fringe theory that the media loved to report because it was wacky but scarey, whereas global warming is entirely mainstream science, dismissed only by the fringe.

      If you read the comments on that WaPo editorial, you will know that it’s going to take more of a wake-up call than tornadoes to arouse the American public. I’d say that a couple of years of extreme crop failure with sky-rocketing food prices (as is being experienced already elsewhere on the planet) will probably do the trick.

  • LFC

    First it was “global climate change isn’t happening.” Then it was “sunspots are causing a short-term phenomenon.” Later it was “this has happened before and it’s just natural.” Eventually it will be “yeah, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.” The denialists by their very nature will never be able to accept that climate change is occurring and that man’s activities are the major cause.

    AM, you do realize that “global cooling” never had any scientific consensus, right? That is was a more of a pop thing? I saw the term “conjecture” used when describing this, not theory (as in scientific theory, not the misuse of so many in the media). That’s why citing Newsweek instead of the strong scientific evidence that we have today is pretty much meaningless, unless they are in turn citing the body of work done by climate scientists.

  • LFC

    When it comes to the denialists, this video says it all (language is not safe for work):


  • Frumplestiltskin

    AM, absolutely pointless. Wait, you mean a Newsweek reporter, using faulty data, back in 1974 was wrong….therefore every scientist today is wrong. Uh huh.

    And before you go stupid and say many people died in tornadoes in 1953, you should be aware that there were NO early warning systems then and fewer people had prepared for such an eventuality. The storms then were categorically weaker.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    LFC and eliza, you both beat me to it.

    By the way there will be global cooling, maybe in about 20,000 years or so. (at least this is the theory). I will be sure to buy a nice coat in anticipation of that event.

  • sinz54

    Global warming is a real phenomenon that we must face.

    But most scientists warn against trying to link any one spate of weather in any one year to that long-term trend. Especially not when there are more prosaic explanations.

    This year, we had a very strong La Nina (google it if you don’t know what that means). That’s all.

    The Southern Oscillation (the El Nino/La Nina cycle) has a powerful and more immediate effect on the weather in North America:

    I live in Massachusetts.
    In 1977, a year much like this one, Boston had a snowstorm on May 9.

    In the 1980s, there was one July so chilly that I celebrated the Fourth of July wearing a winter coat. But there was another year that decade that was so warm that the temperature was in the 50s and 60s and 70s right through the winter–yet nobody said THAT was caused by greenhouse gases. We knew better.

    Now if most of the coming decade is as stormy as this past year has been, despite the variations of the Southern Oscillation, then we might well have something.

    Otherwise, all we’re seeing is the difference between El Nino and La Nina.

    And in a couple more years, we’ll be seeing weather that’s the diametric opposite of this year’s, in which temperatures remain warm right through the winter, and there are almost no tornadoes and almost no snowstorms in New England. And I’m sure that some folks will claim THAT is due to global warming too.

    There is one symptom of global warming that really will be visible, and that’s the melting of the polar caps. Eventually, this will translate into loss of beachfront property along the American coast due to rising sea levels. And that will be visible, and will have no other explanation.

    Just wait till all those expensive condos and hotels in Miami are awash!

    • Churl

      “There is one symptom of global warming that really will be visible, and that’s the melting of the polar caps. Eventually, this will translate into loss of beachfront property along the American coast due to rising sea levels. And that will be visible, and will have no other explanation.”

      And when do you think this will happen?

      • elizajane

        Soon enough to effect my children.
        Not soon enough to force the current deniers to apologize for having blocked all efforts to stop the catastrophe.

        • Churl

          So when will that be, and how much higher than now will sea level reach at that time?

  • Jim_M

    Don’t you just hate it when a few people try forcing their Religion on the rest of us?

    Stay in your church…I’ll stay in mine.

  • greg_barton

    None of us will have churches when they’re torn apart by tornados.

  • danfromny

    “Don’t you just hate it when a few people try forcing their Religion on the rest of us?”

    Comparing climate change denial to religion makes sense. Blind faith.

  • sinz54


    Current average sea level rise is about 2-3 mm/year. 3 mm/year is about one foot per century.

    Your children should be OK.
    Your grandchildren may start to see a problem though, as more and more beachfront property has to be protected by levees and dikes–or else abandoned.

    This is why it’s so hard to get action on this issue.

    Democracies like the U.S. have trouble planning even one decade ahead, let alone 50 years ahead.
    Too many more urgent problems to deal with first.

    So I expect that the West will deal with global warming the way we dealt with the Axis powers, the Communist threat, and the Islamist threat:

    We’ll do very little until we’re actually imperiled and our backs are to the wall. Then we’ll do a whole lot in a big hurry.

    • ottovbvs

      When tornadoes are touching down in Springfield MA (not too close to you I hope Sinz) somethings going on. Needless to say the denialists will say nothing to worry about, no connection with global warming which is a liberal invention anyway. They sound awfully like those 50 a day men who were conned by the tobacco industry and either went to an early grave or are still around coughing their guts out or collapsing after climbing five steps.

  • sinz54


    I’ve personally witnessed two tornadoes in MA in past years.

    About 18 years ago, I was working late in my office and I glanced out the window and saw the funnel cloud seemingly coming straight at us. My supervisor was driving her car just ahead of it and outpaced it. I was getting ready to take cover when it suddenly veered away.

    About 12 years ago, I was driving up Route 128 and there was the funnel cloud just west of me. Fortunately going in the opposite direction from me.

    We’ve had a number of hurricanes in MA too:


    You’re getting a good introduction to MA’s famous environment: Anything can and does happen.

    We even had an earthquake here some years ago.

    Do you live in a place like Tucson AZ, where the weather forecast is always the same:

    “Sunny and hot today….”

    “Sunny and hot today….”

    “Sunny and hot today….”

    “Sunny and hot today….”

  • Mooner

    Reagan once said, “Facts are stubborn things.”
    Yeah, they sure are. Like this fact from a May 2011 report by the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory:

    A change in the mean climate properties that are believed to be particularly relevant to major destructive tornado events has thus not been detected for April, at least during the last 30 years. So far, we have not been able to link any of the major causes of the tornado outbreak to global warming.